Rory McIlroy's easy-as-can-be 66 sets the pace at British Open

Rory McIlroy’s easy-as-can-be 66 sets the pace at British Open

Rory McIlroy's first round included six birdies and no bogies.
Angus Murray/SI

HOYLAKE, England – According to Google maps, it is only 188 miles from Holywood Golf Club, where Rory McIlroy grew up playing in a working-class suburb of Belfast, to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where he played in the first round of the British Open on Thursday. You can take two ferries, switching boats midway, on the Island of Man. Isn’t life in the British Isles fun?

When you shoot an effortless six-under 66 it is. Tea time (4 p.m.) came and went, and nobody had matched McIlroy’s Thursday score.

McIlroy has shot a lot of good Thursday scores in his life, including a 63 this year at the Memorial and a 63 in the first round of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews. His freaky Fridays have been the problem. In Dublin, Ohio, he followed with a 78. Reviewing that Jekyll-and-hide performance with Jack Nicklaus later, Big Jack said, “What the hell?” On that Friday in St. Andrews, in the most heinous weather in the history of weather, Rory shot 80 yet still finished third in the tournament. On Friday, McIlroy will go off at 2:27 p.m. with Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. The forecast for Friday afternoon is iffy, but most forecasts here are iffy. He’ll most likely break 80 by a considerable margin. The big question is can he finish better than third.

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It was McIlroy’s play with the driver that cleared the way for his two major championships, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, and if he wins here it will be because of driver as well.

In 2006, when Tiger Woods won on this course, when it was about as hard and brown as infield dirt, he hit driver one time in 72 holes. McIlroy hit driver four times on Thursday and wished he had hit it a fifth, on the par-4 17th. Driver is the path to birdies at Hoylake.

On 16, a par-5 measuring 577 yards, playing in a slightly helping left-to-right breeze, McIlroy needed only a driver and a 6-iron, a simple shot from a greenside bunker and a tap-in. He birdied three of the four par-5s in a bogey-free round. His par on the par-5 home hole surely felt like a bogey to him. He came off the green with his baseball cap high on his forehead, looking slightly annoyed for a man who had just shot 66.

There’s a supersized Nike swoosh on his golf bag along with the label Santander. A bank by that name has paid its way there, but it is also the coastal city in Spain where Seve Ballesteros grew up. (Well, near it. That was the nearest city to Pedrena.) Seve, who hit toweringly high tee shots, as does McIlroy, still won three British Opens. Rory, who has a soupcon of Seve’s swashbuckling on-course style, noted on Thursday that a high-ball hitter in relatively still conditions can do damage in links golf, and he is surely correct about that.

Ballesteros, when he won in ’79 at Royal Lytham, was derided for playing a shot “out of the car park.” Precision is not so valued anymore. Teeing off with a 2-iron at the par-4 17th, McIlroy hit a pull-hook that came to rest left of the gallery ropes. He drew a perfect lie on short, trampled grass and made a par from there. In links golf, he noted, “good bounces and bad bounces all even out.”

In his Thursday round, he noted, he got more good bounces than bad, which demonstrates a kind of golfing maturity that is rare. About his only bad bounce in the first round came on his second shot at the 18th. McIlroy’s ball settled in a greenside bunker, close enough to the face that he had no reasonable shot at the pin.

He played a safe shot to about 25 feet and two-putted. “I took my medicine,” he said.

Whenever you’re playing seaside golf, even if it is so sunny and warm it feels like holiday golf, taking one’s medicine is always smart. Sometimes it is hard to believe that McIlroy is only 25. Arnold Palmer was a Tour rookie at that age. McIlroy has learned a lot in his lifetime in the game.

He’s won two majors, so he knows what to expect. His Friday struggles—his scoring average for the year, 72.23, is more than four strokes higher than his Thursday average—is something he has discussed openly in interviews. He seems to be taking a page from Phil Mickelson in that regard, and not his Nike stablemate Woods, who seems to finesse every difficult thing in his interviews. Mickelson tends to be open about his weaknesses, and McIlroy is showing signs of going down that path. He has talked about his decision to break off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki. He has talked about his lawsuit against his former agent, Conor Ridge. He has talked about his struggles with seaside golf in bad weather.

He’s also talked about his intense desire to win his national championship. An army is chasing him, but no one has a better chance than he.